Raindance Film Festival 2014



Raindance Film Festival is a celebration of independent cinema.  The 2014 edition took place September 24th – October 5th in London’s Vue Piccadilly theatre.  Many feature and short films were showcased, with much of the talent on hand for Q&A sessions and networking.  We managed to see a few of the films – our thoughts below:

Amira and Sam
Directed by Sean Mullin
Starring Martin Starr, Paul Wesley & Dina Shihabi

by Joanna Orland

Martin Starr’s dramatic potential is finally realized in a role worthy of his talents.  As title character Sam in director Sean Mullin’s debut feature Amira and Sam, Starr gives a brilliantly modest and naturalistic performance as an ex-soldier trying to assimilate back into society after nearly a decade of serving in the Middle East.  His cousin Charlie (Paul Wesley) boldly represents capitalism in all of its shame and glory as a hedge-fund manager utilizing his cousin Sam’s military past to woo lucrative veteran clients.  In addition to his relationship with Charlie, Sam begins to forge one with Amira, an Iraqi refugee who is living in America illegally.  Ethics, social infrastructures, classism, racism and militarism are all examined in this charming package of a comedy, drama, romance film that will easily win over the hearts of its audience as strongly as Sam wins over Amira’s.

While there is much more richness to this film than merely Starr’s excellent performance, it’s hard not to dwell on just how good he is.  Fifteen years ago, Starr became a cult sensation as the finest geek Bill Haverchuck in Freaks and Geeks alongside other stars who seemed to follow with more prominent careers including James Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen.   Starr followed with roles in other Apatow productions and another cult hit Party Down, but only seemed to truly experience a resurgence this year with his new HBO hit Silicon Valley where he plays Gilfoyle, a much edgier geek than Haverchuck ever would grow up to be.  To see his sardonic comedy transform into a humble drama where he can make you both laugh and cry with merely his demeanor is quite special.  Even in this modest performance, there is still room for Starr’s brand of comedy which he skillfully adds to the character in moments of passing humour and in the pursuit of Sam’s passion for standup comedy.

The supporting actors are also very strong.  Paul Wesley is perfectly cast as Charlie, a role that couldn’t be more different from his character in The Vampire Diaries.  Dina Shihabi is charming as Amira, the love interest of Sam, but also a character with a complex back story that is touched upon but unfortunately not as fully developed as Sam’s.  While the film’s title suggests that there are two leads in this film, Amira feels more like a catalyst for Sam rather than an equal.

With Amira and Sam, director Mullin has told an excellent tale of a soldier returning home from war where the soldier is fine, but it’s the country that has lost its mind.  Packaged as an ‘intimate love story with universal implications’ this story is deeply enjoyable and will hopefully be the catalyst to Martin Starr’s dramatic career.

Our interview with director Sean Mullin & actress Dina Shihabi

The Beat Beneath My Feet
Directed by John Williams
Starring Luke Perry, Nicholas Galitzine and Lisa Dillon

by Joanna Orland

A formulaic concept at its core, The Beat Beneath My Feet impresses with its unique voice and endearingly catchy songs.  The film puts a new spin on the classic cinematic premise of young awkward boy meets grumpy older man who used to have a life full of promise but now has a haggard soul.  While the boy character originally seeks help of older man, the film ends with older man’s life being profoundly changed by boy.  This has been seen time and time again on the big screen, but none until now have starred Luke Perry as a faded rockstar who’s faked his own death alongside newcomer Nicholas Galitzine in a star-making performance as teenager Tom who suffers from depression, social awkwardness, bullying and finds songwriting and guitar-playing as his only solace.  Things begin to change for Tom as the friendship between him and Perry’s rockstar blossoms as they help each other overcome their issues.

The performances in this film are outstanding.  Luke Perry plays Steve, the disabled and faded star who spent his youth as a 90’s guitar hero reminiscent of Kurt Cobain.  Steve blames himself for the death of his three-year-old son and unable to forgive himself, he fakes his own death and finds himself living in a council flat in London, neighbouring Tom and his mother.  Perry gives a minimal performance, downplaying the rockstar persona of Steve and focusing on the human aspect of the character.  His guilt, grief, disability and fondness for Tom are at the heart of his portrayal which is gripping in every scene.

Nicholas Galitzine is clearly one to watch with his excellent debut film performance.  Bearing a slight resemblance to Nicholas Hoult from About A Boy + 10 years, Galitzine’s characterization of Tom is fascinating to watch, but it’s his musical talent that takes this performance to the next level.  In the Q&A which followed the Raindance Film Festival screening, director John Williams discussed how the audition process for Tom included actors performing a rendition of Radiohead’s hit song Creep as Williams felt it embodied the character, and would also test the actors’ musical skills in relation to the emotively awkward lyrical content of the song.  A quick Google search later, and here is Nicholas Galitzine performing a cover of Creep on his Soundcloud page.

This brings us to the third star of The Beat Beneath My Feet – the music.  Song and score composition is credited to Geoff Jackson, Phillip Jewson and Paul Cartledge.  Nicholas Galitzine brings these songs to life in his performance, but director John Williams does something even more impressive with them as he turns them into music video segments within the film.  It’s blatant that Williams comes from a music video background, having directed videos for artists including Coldplay and Radiohead.  His use of live action and animation melded seamlessly is visually stunning and a delight to watch within this already joyous film.

Ironically, the only criticism I have for this film is related to these musical numbers.  The first one that appears in the film is near the start as Tom sings about being a Loser, envisioning a music video with a loser motif at every turn.  As this is visually minimalist compared to later music videos segments of the film, I took this as merely an insight into Tom’s mind, not expecting any further elaboration on the music video idea.  The second segment seems to come out of nowhere as it appears so much later in the film, it breaks the pace without warning, drastically changing the film from comedy/drama to musical.  After the second musical number, the following numbers feature at a much better pace, allowing the audience to grasp the idea which is wonderful in its concept and delivery.  It’s just a shame they don’t feature more in the first half to help the consistency and pacing of this absolute gem of an idea.

It’s hard to believe that this is only director John Williams’ first feature film as well as Nicholas Galitzine’s debut performance.  The talent on display in The Beat Beneath My Feet is immense as it flies the flag proudly for independent cinema.  Please support this excellent film by helping it to fund its distribution, marketing and getting its soundtrack published for the masses.  I just basically really want to hear these songs again!

Charlotte and Blake leaning against the window - reflection.psd
Keeping Rosy
Directed by Steve Reeves

Starring Maxine Peake, Blake Harrison and Christine Bottomley

by Joanna Orland

Maxine Peake gives an intense performance in gripping thriller Keeping Rosy. Peake plays Charlotte, a woman who has devoted her life to her career. Foregoing having children and a healthy relationship with a partner, Charlotte has found a penchant for the finer things in life such as a lovely modern penthouse apartment, a hefty black SUV, and a refrigerator stocked with expensive champagne.

After she is overlooked as a partner in the firm to which she has devoted the best years of her life, Charlotte storms out and bursts into her apartment to find her cleaner Mykala smoking a cigarette against Charlotte’s clear instructions. The women bicker and Mykala storms out after Charlotte fires her. Aware that she has just taken out her pent up rage onto Mykala, Charlotte follows her out into the hallway to apologize and offer her back her job. Charlotte spots an expensive bottle of champagne in Mykala’s bag and another fight ensues, leading to dire consequences.

What is truly frightening about this film is the naturalistic way the story unfolds. The audience completely empathizes with Charlotte who is clearly a villain, but becomes a protagonist through the director’s portrayal and Peake’s performance. While Charlotte is the type of character who would not normally commit such horrid crimes, the way this story is told, it is fully believable and almost expected that Charlotte could lose her way in a most terrible and irredeemable way. With a morbid fascination, I could not look away.

Peake’s silent portrayal of Charlotte speaks louder than any of the dialogue centric scenes in this film. The intense expression on her face is mesmerizing and telling of what this character is feeling at any given moment. There is much more to this story than merely a crime, but I feel it’s best the audience watch the story unfold themselves rather than know in advance what is in store for Charlotte. The evolution of the character is a beauty to watch with Peake at the helm.

Lucky Stiff
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Starring Dominic Marsh, Nikki James, Jason Alexander, Pamela Shaw and Dennis Farina

by Joanna Orland

Based on the off-Broadway musical of the same name, Lucky Stiff brings musical farce to the big screen with a talented cast and a kitsch style.  It will be hard for the film to avoid being referred to as Weekend at Bernie’s The Musical, but is that necessarily a bad thing?  Lucky Stiff stars Dominic Marsh as Harry Witherspoon, the lowly shoe salesman who finds out he’s inherited $6million from his deceased American uncle whom he’s never met.  But the inheritance is dependent on one condition – Harry must take Uncle Tony’s corpse on one last trip of a lifetime, to Monte Carlo.

It is on this trip to Monte Carlo where the audience is treated to an array of colourful characters, each with their own motive, mostly all in it for the money.  The laughs are farcical, the singing performances pitch-perfect and the 1950’s style animation incorporation a very nice touch.  Sadly, it is the songs themselves that leave something to be desired.  Some are singalong worthy in the moment, but they aren’t catchy or pleasant enough to warrant a repeat listen.  While an enjoyable experience on the big screen, this is certainly not a soundtrack I’ll be adding to my playlist.

Dominic Marsh is an endearing lead as Harry Witherspoon, and it’s no wonder that Annabel Glick (Nikki James) falls for his charms.  His characterization is reminiscent of Martin Freeman’s early works, showing promise of a great career ahead of him.  Jason Alexander also gives a standout performance as optometrist Vinnie Di Ruzzio, perhaps trying to inject a bit of what Steve Martin added to another off-Broadway musical film adaptation.  Not quite achieving the same legendary status with this film as Steve did with Little Shop of Horrors, this is no fault of Jason’s as his role is slightly underdeveloped.  The actor makes the most of what he is given, with a performance much greater than the role itself.

The rest of the cast also give it their all.  Pamela Shaw is hilarious and pure diva as Rita LaPorta and the late Dennis Farina gives his final performance as Luigi in a glorious sendoff, with the film’s end credits expressing love for the great actor and his memory.

Overall this is a fun film.  It’s not destined for mainstream success, but perhaps it will find its cult following as it did off-Broadway rather than on.

Our interviews with stars Dominic Marsh and Pamela Shaw

The Lust of Angels
Directed by Nagisa Isogai
Starring Reine Honma, Elisa Yanagi and Akira Nakata

by Alice Sanders

I was excited about this film. Having read a synopsis I discovered it was a film where Japanese schoolgirls who travel to school on the Hanagawa line, which is notorious for gropers, decide to take their revenge. Brilliant, I thought, female lead characters along with a kind of radical, violent feminist wish-fulfillment fantasy. I am on board.

But no, this film was highly problematic. I would argue misogynistic, even though it was made by a woman. The film starts with schoolgirl Saori being groped on a train and looking as if she is enjoying it. Cue new girl at school Yuriko to attack the man. Once at school, the girls quickly agree to form a gang to start attacking gropers on the tube.

The Ninth Cloud

Directed by Jane Spencer
Starring Jean Hugues Anglade, Michael Madsen and Megan Maczko

by Joanna Orland

The Ninth Cloud is an existential comedy drama set to a backdrop of London’s prime hipster turf, Hackney.  Zena (Megan Maczko) is reminiscent of a young Charlotte York in the midst of an existential crisis and psychotic meltdown.  While her behaviour would be considered as erratic and worrisome in our reality, in the film’s she is merely a dreamer who is pondering the meaning of life and finding meaning where there isn’t, such as in her “relationship” with American artist Bob played by the wonderful Michael Madsen.  In addition to Bob, there is a gaggle of supporting characters, all underdeveloped yet prominent in this story.

The film focuses primarily on Zena as she wanders the canals and warehouses of Hackney trying to escape the grief of losing her parents in a plane crash.  She becomes obsessed with Bob who tells her he is gay in order to escape her admiration, while still leading her on in every other way possible, except physically.  Zena meets an array of pretentious artists, some French, all narcissists.  Bob is still the apple of Zena’s eye as she believes he holds the key to her meaning of life.

While the film is primarily about Zena and her pondering, the group of other characters detract from the storyline without ever being fully developed into their own true people.  The subject matter of this film is unfocused as too many ideas are being explored with none actually being examined thoroughly.  Between existentialism, classism, realism and delusion, there are just too many topics for one film to cover properly.

With some of the ideas being lost in the film’s sprawling nature, the glue that binds this film is Hackney.  The architecture and landscapes are the perfect backdrop to the fantastical delusions of the main character and the struggling artists in search of meaning to their existences.  This is very much the mood felt in today’s Hackney and this film depicts it perfectly.  If characters and topics were to be edited from this film, it could be restructured to deliver a more focused and empathetic exploration of a delusionist’s search for meaning to her existence as she wanders about in a setting brimming with paralleled authenticity.

Second Act
Directed by Francesca de Sola

Starring Michelle Rodriguez

by Joanna Orland

In short film Second Act, Michelle Rodriguez plays Olivia, a famous Hollywood actress looking to revive her career.  A chance meeting with a theatre director seems to be her best bet and she finds herself attending a less-than-conventional audition.  Abstract and mysterious, this short film is a nice showcase for Rodriguez as she displays both a diva-like and sensitive nature simultaneously.  The city views from Olivia’s penthouse suite are scenic and wonderfully filmed, making me crave a trip to the city of New York.

The film leaves very little food for thought, but is a nice showcase of filmmaking and acting talent.  You could certainly spend 13 minutes in the company of something much worse.

Songs For Alexis

Directed by Elvira Lind Producer
Starring Ryan Cassata, Francine Cassata and Alexis Ann

by Alice Sanders

This film is a documentary about trans singer/songwriter Ryan Cassata. The film is more like a narrative feature than most documentaries are, as it follows eighteen-year old Ryan, and his girlfriend, the titular Alexis. The film is largely about their relationship, and Ryan’s family, and how it is to be young trans man in modern America. Ryan is also a bit of a LGBT celebrity and gets asked to play his set at San Francisco pride. This film warmed my heart, because not only is it pretty rare to see a film about a trans person, but to see a film about a well-adjusted happy trans person is even more rare.

Ryan’s family are a sweet, happy family. Early on in the film there is a scene with Ryan’s mum shopping with a friend, and she talks about how she felt when Ryan first came out to her. She says “it took me a whole month to get my head around it”. I know in a perfect world, it perhaps would take no time at all, but I thought it was very sweet that she thought a month was a long time to ‘get her head around it’, that you get the sense that she feels bad even for that.

Ryan and Alexis’ relationship is not without its ups and downs, especially because they live on opposite sides of America, but the overarching feeling is one of tenderness. Sure, they have typical teenage arguments, and Ryan tries to convince Alexis that jealousy is healthy because he’s read about it in psychology articles, but the two of them clearly care about each other. The glimpses we get into the LGBT world are positive too – a sense of a community and mutual support is portrayed. Ryan turns up at San Francisco pride and marches with a bunch of extremely welcoming strangers. Interestingly though, it is Alexis’ family who have the biggest problem with it all. Her father, who never appears on the film, is a menacing presence. Towards the end of the film, Ryan and Alexis decide to head off together across America to college. At this point Alexis is staying with Ryan’s family. And the most heartbreaking bit of the entire film is the contrast between the big goodbye scene between Ryan and his mother (and brother and friends), and the lack of any goodbye scene for Alexis and her own family, as if nobody cares that she’s gone at all. Alexis has by far the more traditional family set-up, which just goes to show that families’ functionality really has nothing to do with whether they are ‘normal’. There is certainly far more love in Ryan’s family.

Touching The Skin of Eeriness
Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Starring Shota Sometani, Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Houshi Ishida

by Alice Sanders

If Japanese films about loneliness aren’t my favourite genre of film, they’re certainly in my top three. This film was not a disappointment. Chihiro, the main character played brilliantly by Shota Sometani, is odd from the start, After the death of his father he goes to live with his older half-brother and his half-brother’s girlfriend. Chihiro is a strange mix of arrogant and shy, insular and self-satisfied. He spends a lot of his time practising modern dance. At the beginning of the film we see Chihiro use his skills to taunt his brother as he ducks and side-steps all of his brother’s playful attacks. Later, we see that this is the one way that he can truly express himself.

He has dance lessons with his best friend, Togo, and a tutor. Their dances are strange, intimate and powerful affair where they move together mirroring each other’s moves and totally in sync, but they never quite touch. Togo has a girlfriend who doesn’t seem to be that into him and Chihiro despises her. The plot takes a dark turn, the leitmotif of an ancient man-biting fish – polypterus endlicheri – cleverly woven into the plot in both literal and metaphorical ways. It is a story of love, and betrayal, of things unspoken and beneath the water, of a closeness that breeds confusion in many different ways – guilt and transference and tension. It’s a subtle and brilliant piece.

Webisodes Programme

by Alice Sanders

The first thing I saw at Raindance Film Festival was a programme of the first episodes of a bunch of web series. As better technology becomes more ubiquitous it is much easier for anyone to try to make there own series. And it is possible, if not exactly easy, to get an audience for that series on the Internet. I noticed a general theme in the programme I saw –  a lot of fantasy elements. Not only that, but dystopian fantasy elements. I wonder if not a lot of that genre gets commissioned for television or if it is just of the zeitgeist. We are worried about our future!

A couple of the best ones that I saw were Malice – a series clearly based on Alice in Wonderland, but modern and darker. A young woman has dreams where she goes to a place that seems like a medieval kingdom, where her dead father was the leader and she is destined to take over that role. In the ‘real world’ she tells a psychologist about these dreams, and he just ups her medication. Its premise is a satisfying fantasy trope: the which world is real question. It’s also great to see a strong female lead, a warrior and potential leader, even if she is dressed in knee high socks in the first scene. The thing that let it down for me was the acting, which I found unconvincing, but I’d be intrigued to see another episode.

My other favourite was Portal. Portal itself is a drug that takes you to another dimension. In this series, it is more clear that the Portal realm is the unreality, but does that matter? And does it make it any less important. Portal is a place where you can be whoever you want to be, as long as you have a lot of time and money to invest. It’s like the ultimate version of social media, in a way. Instead of projecting the best, most palatable bits of yourself, you can actually live the life you most want. Well, almost. Portal is also causing problems in the real world, like any drug. The main character, an ex drug addict himself, is drawn back into the seedy world of drug dealing for want of cold hard cash. It’s hard to tell after one episode, but this definitely had me wanting to know more, there’s a great deal of potential in the concept.

The blessing and the curse with Internet series is they don’t go through as many people as a programme for broadcast would. This might allow Internet series to be on more niche or out-there topics. However, it also means they don’t go through the same number of producers and script-editors, who perhaps sometimes seem like the enemy of the writer, but who are there for a very good reason. There were a few shonky ones. And there was an Australian series about a man under a witness protection programme called ‘Neighbours’. An Australian series called Neighbours – did nobody spot a problem with that?

Wild Canaries
Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine

Starring Lawrence Michael Levine, Sophia Takal, Alia Shawkat, Annie Parisse, Kevin Corrigan and Jason Ritter

by Joanna Orland

Noah and Barri are a Brooklynite couple suspicious of their elderly neighbour’s death in this screwball comedy which also features an amazing ensemble cast of supporting characters. Rather than solve the troubles of their relationship, Barri forces Noah to investigate her suspicions that foul play is involved in the death of their neighbour, who supposedly died of natural causes when she was well into her 80’s.

There are suspects aplenty, the first being the prodigal son Anthony who seems rather unfazed by his mother’s death and is quick to sell off her valuable possessions to aid his financial troubles. Then there is the landlord Damien whose property value would immediately increase if the only rent-control tenant were to no longer live in the building. With comedy talents such as Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development), Kevin Corrigan (Pineapple Express) and Jason Ritter (Parenthood) to nicely fill out the cast, this film can’t help but be an enjoyable and fun watch.

While the screwball comedy fun is rife, the weak link in this film is the plot. There are so many holes in the way it plays out, the film inevitably finishes with two of the characters discussing what has just transpired in order to fill in a rather confused audience. In addition to the confusing plot, there is really no reason behind Barri’s persistence in finding the death of her neighbour suspicious, outside of the mere avoidance of confronting her own relationship issues. While this is a good enough reason to ignite suspicion and find a distraction, her level of suspicion and determination in the pursuit of finding clues is disproportionate to any reason she should have to suspect foul play.

Plot holes and confusion aside, Wild Canaries is a light and fun screwball comedy with an excellent support cast. It will certainly keep you on your toes as there is no way to predict how it will unfold – even the characters seem confused by the outcome.

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